The American legal system has started to see significant slowdowns and trial delays due to the coronavirus outbreak.
A number of actions demonstrate how courts and firms are reacting to the possibility of a continued outbreak. One particular event resulted in a civil lawsuit being suspended for two weeks after a partner at a New York City firm tested positive for the virus. The federal court systems in Connecticut and Michigan have already pushed back all of their jury trials until the middle or end of April. The state courts of Michigan are recommending that all judges postpone their trials unless they are criminal cases related to a defendant that is in custody. The federal courthouse closest to the nursing home outbreak in Kirkland Washington has essentially remained empty for the past week as everything scheduled is still on hold.
Judges and all other kinds legal professionals are now placed in the difficult position of trying to balance public health and safety with important constitutional issues such as the right to a speedy trial for criminal defendants. Crowded courtrooms and prisons could certainly become hotspots for the virus if proper precautions are not taken.
A criminal defense attorney in New York was interviewed, and he says that it seems like most lawyers are essentially waiting to determine what to do next. Many prosecutors are trying to avoid trials and resolve their cases through pleas or even dropping less important charges altogether. However, this can present extreme problems and frustrations for clients who actually want to go to trial for various reasons. They may feel that they are essentially being denied their rights in the name of efficiency. Other incidents involved a group of jurors in Manhattan who believe that they were exposed to the virus inside the courthouse, which had to be thoroughly cleaned afterward.
The Chief Judge of the Western District of Washington said that he has already severely limited his building’s operations in accordance with public health recommendations. Other judges have come up with a process where any criminal defendants affected by suspended operations can file an appeal to have a trial or other hearing if necessary.
There are some surprises despite these restrictions and closures. One courthouse just a few miles from a large outbreak in New Rochelle, New York is essentially functioning as normal. Other buildings have only restricted specific guests who have visited countries such as China and Iran within the last two weeks. Those going through the citizenship process and attending naturalization ceremonies have been limited to one additional guest in many states.
Large scale closures
Some government institutions have already suspended operations altogether or utilized a much more thorough screening process to help prevent the spread of the virus. Most courthouses in the country are now excluding people who display any flu like symptoms.
Constitutional protections for all Americans
Any person charged with a crime is guaranteed certain rights such as a speedy trial and the right to present a defense case if they choose to do so. The criminal justice system needs to find a way to preserve these rights in some kind of meaningful way despite problems caused by the recent virus outbreak.